Jesus has spent what feels like the last 17 Sundays talking about bread when he suddenly takes a hard left and tells his followers that the bread he's been talking about that will make them live forever if they consume it is actually his flesh and blood. Many clergy friends of mine like to jokingly refer to last week's gospel text as zombie vampire Jesus. It's a little dark, it's a little weird, its not easy or simple to fully comprehend, and as the story continues in this week's gospel, we're apparently not alone in feeling this way. Many of Jesus' followers questioned this teaching of eating flesh and blood saying, "this is really difficult. Who can accept this?"
Rather than trying to explain it further or dismiss it like it came out wrong, Jesus doubles down on the scandal and asks them "Does this offend you?".
Jesus, you just told me I have to eat you like some sort of desperate, crazed Donner Party member...yeah, I'm kind of offended by this! This goes against my personal sensibilities and the moral code I thought most cultures had adopted where we don't eat each other. Imagine how offensive this must have been to Jesus' early Jewish followers when there were very strict prohibitions in Torah Law forbidding the consumption of blood as it was the source of life, and all life belonged to God, not humans. Not only did it probably sound bizarre and immoral, it was literally against the law and super sacrilegious. To consume human flesh and blood would have immediately made those doing it ritually impure with extensive mandatory re-purification rituals to re-enter into communities and homes.
This is deeply troubling and offensive stuff Jesus is talking about, and rather than apologizing for making us feel uncomfortable, Jesus goes further. Does THIS offend you? What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?" Would that offend you? If eating bread that gives you eternal life is offensive, just wait until to you hear what Jesus has to say about loving your enemies and selling all your possessions and giving the profits to the poor. Does THIS offend you? Just wait until Jesus dies, and comes back to life, and breathes the Holy Spirit on you, and you're bonded to his death through baptism.
This concept of being offended is kind of omnipresent these days. Regardless of where you fall in the political or social spectrums, most folks have strongly held beliefs and mental schemas in place regarding what they think is morally right or wrong. Now, I'm not here to make a commentary on political correctness or where the lines should be drawn or on which side you should be, but rather just highlight that this idea of being offended seems to be acknowledged and spoken about on a level that I don't previously recall.
Scientific studies have recently shown that the parts of the brain that are activated when someone identifies as "offended" or when another person disagrees with their political, religious, or moral beliefs - these neurological zones are very similar to the parts of the brain that are activated when someone physically attacks you, so perhaps it should not come as a surprise when people react so passionately when they feel offended. We hold many of our beliefs so strongly that we perceive them to be a part of our very being.
It should be noted that the feeling of being offended is also often reserved for those with long standing privilege or power, as many of us gathered here today possess in this time and in this country, as we are accustomed to a Eurocentric Protestant way of thinking, believing, or acting as the norm, as things should be, so when others contradict or disagree with us, its even more jarring because we have become somewhat unable to discern that other points of view or world perspectives are also equally valid, and we perceive that our power and privilege feel threatened or challenged, so we dig in our heels and project our perceived discomfort as an attack from others. And not that this is completely the fault of those with power and privilege as we're not necessarily intending or willfully choosing how our brains work, but we are responsible for the impact of our actions and reactions, so it is good that we work at being present, actively listening, and resist internalizing someone's alternative perspective or beliefs as a personal attack on us.
Dr. Robert Enright, author of the book The Forgiving Life: A Pathway to Overcome Resentment and Creating a Legacy of Love has done extensive research on the science of the brain and consciousness, with particular focus on the science behind harm and forgiveness. This is not an endorsement of all his claims or teachings, but I do want to lift up an article he recently wrote for Psychology Today about the difference between being offended and being harmed, with a nod to author Lou Marinoff for initiating Enright's interest on this subject.
Dr. Enright doesn't delegitimize uncomfortable feelings around being offended, but proposes reframing that discomfort as something distinct from harm and encourages folks practicing the art of letting that discomfort go rather than festering with it internally. A punch in the face, a destroyed reputation, being arrested on false charges all fall under actual harm according to Enright, while having one's feelings hurt, being critiqued, or receiving resistance or pushback from others, particularly those with little or no power or privilege should be categorized as being offended. Enright then asks, if I was not actually harmed by this other person, what exactly am I holding on to? What consequences or repercussions, if any, will come of this for me or the other person? Is there space for both their perspective and mine? Am I actually hurting myself by carrying this offense around when I could work on letting it go and reframing my focus to self-care, bridge building, or active listening?
I think this last point is quite key in the work and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. If we focus so much on the offense of being asked to eat flesh and drink blood, we are missing out on the point, on the perspective, on the opportunity to learn, grow, and experience liberation while working for the liberation of others. This word that is translated as "offend" in English; the original Greek is "scandaleezo" - sound familiar? In Greek it holds a wider meaning as many ancient Greek words do wherein it entails a sense of something that acts as a stumbling block or causes one to fall. So when Jesus asks, "does this offend you?", he is also asking "is this what's going to cause you to stumble? Is THIS what's going to lead you away from my teachings and not be able to believe in me? Well just wait until what happens next, because if you can't accept and believe in this then you're probably not going to be able handle believing in someone who does miracles and flips tables in temples and eats with sinners and tax collectors and sex workers and someone who dies, comes back to life, and then ascends to a different reality.
The life and work and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth were, and continue to be, one of the greatest "scandaleezo"s in history. There is so much of what he did and said that is unbelievable, counter-cultural, revolutionary, and dare I make a bad cannibalism pun...hard to digest. Every time we confess our communal beliefs with the words of the Creeds, there are moments that still cause me to pause, even after going through four years of seminary, because I still can't fully grasp their meaning or accept their historical legitimacy. There are theological concepts and scriptural passages that challenge me and cause me discomfort. They offend me. They cause me to stumble, to doubt, to recoil from fully jumping in and accepting without question....and I believe that is a natural part of our faith journeys. We are somewhat fragile beings with limited comprehension and an incomplete knowledge of the entirety of creation.
What Jesus is teaching us here, though, by offering multiple scandalous offensive concepts is that there's a trick to scandals, to stumbling blocks, to being offended; it's not that they exist - this is inevitable in creation and humanity - but rather the trick is learning how to continue moving after without holding on to the weight or burden that accompanies them. We will fall short, we will make mistakes, there will be shame and discomfort, we will be challenged in our strongly held beliefs and traditions to the point at which we throw up walls and build a fort around us...but if we stay in these fortresses, we don't go anywhere. We're just stuck. We don't let others in, we limit our potential and the opportunities for freedom of those we encounter.
This is certainly not to say that being offended is always wrong or illegitimate. Sometimes being offended will trigger us to awareness and action, to stand up against destructive or oppressive words and actions, or to defend ourselves against forces that would seek to limit or reduce us. What I see in the teachings of Jesus and Dr. Enright, though, is that it's important for us to create space for perspective in order to discern between what is harmful and destructive to us or those around us, and what is a challenge or pushback that could actually serve as an opportunity to reevaluate, learn, and grow in new directions.
Through his flesh and blood and bread, Jesus is offering something scandalously beautiful and all-together amazing. Jesus gives us grace through our stumbles, strength for the journey, accompaniment along the way, and a path for liberation from the weight of sin, temptation, and being offended. Jesus offers us his body, and what we get is eternal freedom, in this life and the next. Freedom to let go, let God carry these burdens of being offended, and a path wide enough for different perspectives and beliefs to walk alongside us where ALL are liberated. They may be hard to comprehend, but like Jesus says, his words are Spirit and life, gifts freely given and already received. Thanks be to God for that. Amen,